Go back to article: The birth of a collection in Milan: from the Leonardo Exhibition of 1939 to the opening of the National Museum of Science and Technology in 1953

From drawing to model: interpreting Leonardo

One of the most interesting reflections on the meaning of and modalities with which to study constructions of models from Leonardo’s drawings was left to us by Vittorio Somenzi, science historian and one of the principal authors of the Museum’s models. In 1955, two years after the Leonardo exhibition and with the intention of planning a new series of machine models under commission from the Museum, he wrote an article on the reconstruction of Leonardo models:

The error that threatens any historical reconstruction – whether of events or ideas or machines – comes from the tendency to project the knowledge we have today into the past, and to attribute to the protagonists of those events, to those who sustained those ideas, to the designers of those machines, the intentions that would have animated us if we could have put ourselves in their places. In order to avoid this danger, someone embarking upon the reconstruction or interpretation of any among the various projects buried among those seven thousand folios filled by Leonardo with drawings and notes, must first of all leave aside any analogy between these projects and the successive realizations owing to the gradual dissemination of that very method of research applied first by him in a systematic manner to all, or nearly all, branches of science and technology (Somenzi, 1955, p 1).

The need to be objective, to stick to the information left by Leonardo, is expressed clearly by Somenzi, even if the attitude with which the drawings were interpreted was not always so detached, and often the enthusiasm of seeing among Leonardo’s drawings precursory ideas or project realisations and mechanical practices resulted in taking the upper hand. And a year later it was again Somenzi who admitted that:

…it did sometimes occur that the models executed, even under the direction of specialists, showed the error of excessive optimism, from the historical point of view, regarding Leonardo’s prophetic capacities (Somenzi, 1956, p 4).

Leonardo’s drawings were often a response to his need to fix on paper the results of his studies and observations, without necessarily having implications in terms of practicality or project design. Aside from few exceptions it is very difficult to recognise, among the thousands of pages written by him, what he actually ended up constructing, by contrast with what remained at the stage of an idea, or even counted among the numerous machines that he had observed and documented.

Many of the drawings, even while fascinating, sophisticated, or precursory of modern ideas, were executed rapidly and lack in many mechanical or structural details, some of which would even be indispensable for any sort of practical realisation. This is normal, because drawings arrive at the level of constructional details only at the point of execution. The machines Leonardo designed rarely had practical or project-related implications, and they were often observations of existing technologies also documented by other fifteenth-century engineers: in some cases, they are quite detailed, but in others they are quick sketches, or focus only on individual mechanisms, showing no mechanical and structural parts. The lack of structural parts, of ‘castles’, in the machinery drawings by Leonardo and other fifteenth-century architects-engineers, and the use of ‘boxes’ to hold gears and mechanisms, clearly reveal that these studies responded first of all to theoretical needs. Francesco di Giorgio Martini wrote about this in his Treatise on Architecture:

One must know that knowing how to brace and fasten such buildings takes as much ability and ingenuity as it does to construct them, as a great deal involves beds, armatures and their connections. Wishing to show these edifices one cannot design all the things they need, so the architect himself must understand them.[14] 

It is left to the builder to solve these structural problems, which in technical drawings would distract one from observing the mechanical invention.

With respect to the age-old issue of the practical execution of the machines Leonardo designed, it is important to emphasise that the inadequacy of motive powers and available materials, as well as the question of friction, made the actual operation of many of the sophisticated sequences of gears essentially impossible. Furthermore, Leonardo could not avail himself of the sum of collective experiences needed for the practical execution of his ideas, as he did not oversee a laboratory or a highly specialised or diversified workshop with all the essential professionals, such as carpenters, metalworkers and foundry men. Last but not least, it is important to note that Leonardo himself showed little interest in proceeding beyond the intellectual and graphic development of an idea to its practical implementation.

Very often Leonardo’s drawings constitute, rather, infinite variations on a given theme, reaching the proportions of a refined but impossible game. Examples of this can be seen in the series of frightful, visionary weapons, exercises of fantasy that re-elaborate the war-faring traditions from the Romans on to the Middle Ages, without any sort of practical finality, as in the ballistae or the fantastical idea of a covered war carriage.

Many of Leonardo’s ideas contained instances of great intuition, and can be considered precursors of inventions that would be refined only centuries later. The technical abilities then existing, the engines and materials available in that epoch often were inadequate for realising his ideas, even if this limitation does not make them appear any less ingenious, on account of their anticipatory power. The risk, however, as reaffirmed by Somenzi, is that of attributing to Leonardo mental mechanisms or ideas contemporary to ourselves, and of considering him, improperly, to be an inventor of machines that were realised only centuries later.

The project designers for the Museum’s models have studied and given form to Leonardo’s drawings by means of a complex work of interpretation. In many cases, they made comparisons of different drawings in order to realise machines that had no indications regarding certain details, and thus they attempted to identify nuclei of drawings that showed similarities in terms of theme and chronology. One of the main problems facing the project designers was the lack in certain drawings of bearing structures and of details. Many of the models thus complete Leonardo’s drawings, with integrations necessary for rendering them theoretically operational. For example, in the covered war chariot from the folio Popham 1030 of the British Museum, Leonardo did not draw details for the mortar-pieces, and so Giovenale Argan, as was stated in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue (Scienza e Tecnica, 1953, XVIII), realised them in accordance with the profile of similar artillery from the period.


Figure 10

Colour photograph of a wooden model of a covered war chariot with a cut out section showing interior detail

Detail of a model of a covered war chariot, by Giovenale Argan.


Figure 11

Colour photograph of a wooden model of a covered war chariot

Model of a covered war chariot, by Giovenale Argan.


Figure 12

Colour photograph of a wooden model of a spring catapult

Model of a balista, by Giovenale Argan.


In the case of the model for the flying machine with the crossbow engine, Soldatini and Somenzi made use of two different studies from the Codex Atlanticus, so completing the form of the wings with the bearing structure. Paolo Galluzzi at a later point recognised in the crossbow engine a mechanism for a timepiece that had nothing to do with the flying machine, confirming the doubts on interpretation that Somenzi had already expressed in 1955 (Galluzzi, 1996, p 218).

Other difficulties involved the scale and materials with which to realise the models. Different routes were undertaken from time to time, resorting to reduced scales for many machines or to considerable dimensions for others, with attention placed on fortifying the bearing structures. Many of the drawings, furthermore, present incoherencies between the apparent scales indicated by Leonardo (in placing the machine into relation with the dimensions of a man) and the measures designated in the notes, which often refer to much larger orders of magnitude. In the drawing of the parachute, the dimensions for the man are proportionally larger with respect to the base of seven metres indicated by Leonardo in his notes, and above all, more reasonable. On the other hand, in the drawing of the beating wing, by way of reference to the man manoeuvring it, this would appear to be three or four metres long. But in his notes Leonardo indicates a length of twelve metres. One of the criteria followed in the selection of models to construct, in accord with the project designers’ intentions, was to concentrate on the studies that were most original to Leonardo. In this respect, though, erroneous evaluations were made, because many of the models constructed were based on drawings depicting machines that already existed during Leonardo’s epoch. Examples of such can be seen in the column-raising machine, which was also drawn by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, a traditional Tuscan machine, or in the hydraulic saw, which was widely diffuse and probably introduced at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Plausibility, aesthetic quality, and harmony of proportions were always held in consideration, and because of this, these models still remain a precious testimony in the history of the interpretation and divulgation of Leonardo’s thought, as well as objects having their own importance in terms of the scientific, engineering and artisanal accuracy with which they were executed.


Figure 13

Colour photograph of a painted model of a mountain fortress

Model of a mountain fortress, by Ermenegildo Menichetti.




Further reading


Calvi, G, 1982, I Manoscritti di Leonardo da Vinci dal punto di vista cronologico, storico e biografico (Edizione del testo del 1925 riveduta e integrata a cura di A. Marinoni), Busto Arsizio

Calvi, I, 1953, L’Ingegneria militare di Leonardo, Milano

Crippa, F, Sutera, S, 2005, Leonardo e il mondo tessile. Il primo telaio meccanico, Milano

Galluzzi, P, 1991, Prima di Leonardo: Cultura delle macchine a Siena nel Rinascimento, Milano

Gille, B, 1972, Leonardo e gli ingegneri del Rinascimento, Milano

Gioppo, L, Redemagni, P, 2000, Il Codice Atlantico di Leonardo da Vinci nell, Edizione Hoepli 1894 –1904 curata dall’Accademia dei Lincei, Garbagnate Milanese

Il Codice Atlantico di Leonardo da Vinci pubblicato dalla Regia Accademia dei Lincei, a cura di G. Piumati, Milano, 1894–1904

Kemp, M, 1982, Leonardo da Vinci. Le mirabili operazioni della natura e dell’uomo, Milano

Kemp, M, 2006, Leonardo da Vinci. Experience, Experiment and Design, London

Le fantastiche macchine di Leonardo da Vinci. Come costruirle, come farle funzionare, Milano 1998

Leonardo. Saggi e ricerche. A cura del Comitato Nazionale per le onoranze a Leonardo da Vinci nel V centenario della sua nascita, Roma 1952

Marani, P C, Piazza, G M, 2006, Il Codice di Leonardo da Vinci nel Castello Sforzesco, Milano

Mostra di Leonardo da Vinci. Catalogo, Milano, 1939

Mostra di Leonardo da Vinci. Guida ufficiale. Milano, Palazzo dell’Arte, maggio-ottobre XVII, Milano, 1939

Nanni, R, Torrini, M, 2013, Leonardo 1952 e la cultura dell’Europa nel Dopoguerra, Firenze

Sangiorgi, C, 2004, La mostra di Leonardo del 1939, Brevi note critiche sulla mostra e sul ruolo svolto da Giuseppe Pagano

Sutera, S, 2001, Leonardo. Le fantastiche macchine di Leonardo da Vinci al Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia di Milano. Disegni e modelli, Milano

Sutera, S (a cura di), 2005, Uomini e geni del tessuto industriale italiano. Dal telaio di Leonardo al made in Italy. Atti del Convegno, Milano

Tursini, L, 1953, Le armi di Leonardo da Vinci, Milano


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150404/004